In a world where smartphones reign supreme (and millions of users spend hours of their day on sites like Facebook and Instagram) it’s no small wonder that businesses have flocked to social media platforms to reach consumers, establish a brand voice, and generate brand awareness. Instagram is earning $595 million (and counting) per year in mobile ad revenue alone, and 2 million businesses are using Facebook to advertise to customers. It feels like new companies are popping up all the time, generating massive growth on Instagram and amassing hundreds of thousands of followers. From cult beauty brands like Ouai and Glossier to mom-focused brands like Freshly Picked and Rags, explosive social media growth has helped launch many a business into the mainstream. But for some savvy entrepreneurs, a more diversified digital marketing strategy can help grow an eCommerce business more predictably and securely than trying to grow a massive Instagram following. Courtney Brown, Founder and CEO of Cents of Style, elected to focus her marketing efforts (and dollars) on owned assets and paid advertising to build an omnichannel strategy that offers her more control over her reach and more trackable return on investment. “Only about 10% of our traffic comes from social media. We don’t focus our own marketing efforts on our own instagram and social very much,” Brown said. “Although they bring awareness and brand content, they’re not where we see ROI and good returns. Instagram is sexy right now. You see big numbers, and it shows that there’s a party going on. But big numbers on Instagram doesn’t necessarily mean big conversions.” Cents of Style launched in 2007, before social media’s skyrocketing prevalence. Facebook was brand new to the internet, Instagram didn’t yet exist, and many people didn’t have smartphones— in fact, the first-generation smartphone wasn’t released until June of that year. Blogging was taking off, so Brown concentrated her efforts on building an affiliate marketing program that would incentivize bloggers to share links to her products. She also built a substantial email list and started sending out regular emails (like “Fashion Friday” blasts). Eleven years later, even with the rise of Instagram and Facebook, Brown’s email marketing and affiliate marketing strategies are still thriving and have steadily grown the company into the multi-million dollar business it is today. As social media became more and more prevalent in daily life, the company expanded to run paid ads on social media (including retargeting ads), but has largely steered cleared of typical, organic social media marketing efforts like paying influencers.  “I’m not a big believer in sponsored posts,” Brown explained, describing the practice of paying influencers to post about products in exchange for a flat rate. “I’m very ROI-driven,” she continued.  “To the point where even my own marketing team gets frustrated with me sometimes. I hate throwing money out there that I’m not going to see a return on.”

Owned Assets For Stable Growth

In lieu of sponsored social media posts and brand awareness plays, Brown recommends that eCommerce businesses concentrate on the assets they already own: Their website and their email list, for starters. I’m gonna liken [organic social media marketing] to sharecropping on someone else’s land,” Brown explained. “It’s a platform, the social networks owns those users. They allow businesses to market to them, but at any moment they can pull those users back from you. Facebook gets to decide how many people see that post, and more often than not you have to pay to be seen at all.” While a big following on social media can be an effective way to reach customers, Brown wants companies to remember that it’s risky business to focus solely on social media without a diversified digital marketing strategy in play. “We have a lot of friends where something like 75% of their traffic is coming from social media — when Facebook made their first major changes, they lost hundreds of thousands of dollars because they could no longer reach those people,” Brown recounted. “I’m not saying social networks aren’t important, I’m just saying you need to diversify.” To diversify her own strategy with owned assets, Brown focused on building a big email list and robust affiliate marketing program.

The Importance of an Email List

Email marketing isn’t dead. In fact, it is a major pillar of revenue for many online businesses. A whopping 80% of retailers who use email marketing claim it to be their primary source of customer retention — and a lucrative one at that. Every one dollar spent on email marketing in the United States averages an ROI of $44, and every pound spent in the UK averages a £38 return. Your customers are spending time in their inboxes: 91% of consumers check their email daily, and the customers who buy email-marketed products spend an average of 138% more than customers who don’t receive email offers. With statistics as cut and dry as that, it’s shocking that only 49% of businesses use some form of email automation. Building an email list and beginning to market to your customers via email is a major step toward a diversified marketing strategy that converts.

How to get started

Building an email list substantial enough to begin generating a good return can seem scary or intimidating when starting from scratch. Here are a few tips for getting started

1. Find a way to collect email addresses

You’ve seen these before: A pop-up that appears when you arrive at a certain website, asking for your email address. This is one of the simplest and easiest ways to begin generating an email list — the trick is to make sure you’re providing something valuable to the customer, in exchange for their email address. This can be a discount on their first order, a free item, or even a digital product that provides something of value to the customer. Cents of Style started out building their email list by providing a free pair of earrings with customers’ first orders to those who provided their email address. You can also consider using customized pop-ups for returning customers, or customers who visit specific landing pages — this is called onsite retargeting. Digital marketer experimented with onsite retargeting by introducing an email collection popup for returning visitors only who spent at least 15 seconds on their site. They segmented the pop-up even further by disabling it for people who arrived at the site from an email (which means they were already signed up) and on sales pages, so they did not interrupt purchasing decisions. This campaign generated 2,689 leads in two weeks, with an average time on page increase of 54%.

2. Use a personalized call to action on blog posts and landing pages

A general pop-up is a great way to begin collecting email addresses, but more personalized CTAs can entice users looking for specific content to subscribe. For example, if you have a blog post about a specific subject that performs fairly well, include a CTA on that blog post offering similar newsletter content in exchange for an email address. In a HubSpot study, these personalized CTAs have a 42% higher success rate than general CTAs or pop-ups.

3. Create and send content of value

Building an email list that converts means sending emails people actually want to open. By providing value in every single email you send out — from content to promotions and more — you can increase customer retention and encourage open rates and conversion rates to stay. “You have to give them a reason to show up,” Brown explains. “Email gets really fun because you get to tell the brand story, you give them a “why” to stick around, and you can provide them with real value. That might look like a blog post or video that educates, or a quiz, or a deal or promotion.” In addition to email marketing, Courtney leveraged affiliate marketing to consistently point new customers toward her site. These two marketing channels have been the driving forces behind her multi-million dollar brand.

The Importance of Affiliate Marketing

Affiliate marketing is a way for companies to incentivize customers, influencers, and brand advocates to promote the brand or its products in exchange for a commission on purchases. Most commonly, affiliates are given a link and then granted a kickback for every purchase made through that link. Affiliate marketing is popular and still growing: Affiliate marketing spend reached $5.3 billion in 2017, and is expected to rise to $6.8 billion by 2020. In 2016, 81% of brands used some form of affiliate marketing. “In 2012 we took Cents of Style 100% online and started an affiliate marketing/influencer plan. This was at the height of the blogging boom. Fashion blogs, coupon blogs, budget blogs, all began linking to us with affiliate links,” Brown explained. “We started rapidly growing, 200% and 300%, thanks to our affiliate marketing program. There is a significant amount of power in affiliate marketing.”

How to get started

If you think an affiliate marketing program might work for your eCommerce business, here are some tips to get started.

1. Decide how much commission you can pay affiliates

Sit down and do a little math to determine how much of a “cut” you can afford to give affiliate marketers and still make a profit. Affiliate commissions can typically range anywhere from 5% to 50%. The more you offer, the more affiliate traffic you’re likely to receive. Remember that affiliates aren’t just bringing you sales, they’re bringing you new customers you can continue to market to in the future. When you consider how much you can earn from a single customer during your relationship to them, it’s possible that spending more to reward affiliates will pay off in the end. It’s important to make sure you can stay profitable while offering a commission to affiliates and paying for an affiliate network. But don’t get stingy: You want to entice and encourage your affiliates to spread the word as much as possible. If you expect or want affiliate marketing to become a major driver of your business, you may also want to consider increasing your prices to widen margins and allow for affiliate commissions.

2.  Sign up for an affiliate network.

Affiliate networks are marketplaces where affiliate markers can find your affiliate program and begin using your links to earn commissions. Because these networks provide a tracking software, you don’t need to build your own way to track affiliate sales. Remember, affiliate networks also take a cut of your sales or charge a regular fee in exchange for their service. Make sure you can still stay profitable even with this additional cost. There are many affiliate networks to choose from, including Commission Junction, ShareASale, LinkShare, Clickbank, and If you are just getting started with affiliate marketing, you can look into tools that are niche specific. For example, Fashion Brands should consider fashion-specific affiliate programs such as RewardStyle or ShopStyle Collective.   If you’re running your website on Shopify, using a Shopify-specific affiliate apps (or apps designed to integrate with Shopify) may make the process simpler for you:, Loyalty Lion, and LeadDyno are all designed to integrate with a shopify POS. Cents of Style uses ShareASale to manage and market their affiliate program. We are very faithful to our affiliate network,” Brown said. “They’re great for boutique brands with a powerful interface.” As you build your network of affiliates, it’s vital to keep them up-to-date by communicating new products, deals and promotions, and trending products on your site. The more they know about your products, the more they can promote your brand to their audience, which helps both of you.   

Using Email and Affiliate Marketing in Tandem

Once you’re set up to begin email and affiliate marketing individually, it’s time to start strategizing how you can use the two in tandem to exponentially grow your reach and revenue. For Cents of Style, that means using their affiliate program to grow their email list. “We acquire new customers through affiliate marketing, then grow our email list to make repeat customers out of them, Brown explained.”

How to get started

1. Create personalized email opt-ins for affiliates and affiliate shoppers

Through a personalized pop-up or CTA, encourage affiliates to opt in to receiving your emails. Consider creating a more personalized email collection pop-up specifically for shoppers that have arrived at your site through an affiliate link, enticing them to input their email address. Here, you can see Tula has two different popups that appear on their site: The first is for people who arrive to their site normally, while the second is for visitors who arrive through an affiliate link.

2. Make sure you’re offering something of value

Affiliate links are going to bring new traffic and new customers to your site. In order to make sure you are growing your email list proportionally, continue to ensure you’re offering something valuable to your customer in exchange for their emails. If you’re having trouble collecting emails, your offer may not be valuable enough. Kathy Kuo Home takes a “giveaway” approach to email collection. Anyone who provides their email address receives 10% off their order AND the potential to win a $500 gift card. That is a significant increase in perceived value above a simple discount. Stryde is an eCommerce marketing agency that helps companies large and small diversify their digital marketing efforts. Request a free proposal to see how your marketing efforts stack up. ]]>

Laurel is a member of the executive team at Stryde. She's been doing digital marketing for businesses for 10 years. Two years ago, she started set up her own ecommerce business selling baby gowns and knows the struggles of a small business owner. She loves talking about digital marketing, content, SEO, and conversion rate optimization.